WEST ORANGE, NJ — There is one open seat on the ballot for the West Orange Board of Education, and the two candidates running debated each other virtually on Oct. 1 in an event hosted by the West Orange Council of PTAs and moderated by the League of Women Voters. Incumbent Ken Alper, the current BOE president, is running for a second term on the board against challenger Melinda Huerta.
Alper and Huerta each had two minutes for an opening statement. They then answered three questions from the WOCPTA for two minutes per question and were allowed another minute for a rebuttal. The candidates were given two minutes with the option of a one-minute rebuttal to answer questions submitted from the public as well. Alper and Huerta were also given two minutes each to make closing statements.
Diversity was a topic discussed at the debate, with the candidates sharing their ideas for how the needs of students with different cultural backgrounds can be met.
“One of the top challenges is access to programs,” Alper said during the debate. “We need to recruit students for some things, we need to have our teachers and counseling staff looking for kids who might not know to try something. We also need to remove some of the barriers that are in the way for kids taking the classes they might want to — being in honors classes, for instance.”
He added that the district should continue to diversify its staff, and that the fact that two-thirds of the district’s students go to a school with a black or Latinx principal will continue to improve this.
“Diversity here in West Orange doesn’t just mean diversity in race,” Huerta said in her answer. “We have diversity in thoughts, diversity in opinion, and I think that’s what makes West Orange such a great area to live in. We have a diverse community, but oftentimes our staff doesn’t reflect that, our leadership doesn’t reflect that.”
With her extra time, Huerta said she would like to see more parents get involved in the school community and take leadership roles.
“Our parents need to be empowered to take those roles,” she said. “As a parent in the district, I would like to see more parents of color and parents of (different) gender identities (take these roles). It helps the students become better developed.
“We need to help empower those voices and have the status quo rocked a little bit,” she continued. “We have to have these voices and faces in these important leadership roles, not just in the administration and on the school board, but in town in general.”
School facilities were also a topic of discussion at the debate; Huerta pointed out that, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the use of space is different than it normally would be in a building.
“I know infrastructure is one of the hurdles that we’re facing right now because of ventilation issues and the lack of space that is available for use,” she said. “I think we need to communicate with the township to acquire space and use space that we have available in town. Also, we can leverage our community partnerships — for example, with daycare facilities.”
Alper said a referendum to upgrade facilities in the last several years never made it to the ballot for voters to decide on because the cost was astronomically high.
“In a perfect world, we would have a facility to use as a preschool,” he said. “The taxpayers are extremely burdened in West Orange as it is. You want to make sure that whatever you do is as reasonable as possible, has the least impact on the taxpayers as possible and provides the students and families with the most bang for their buck.”
Other topics discussed at the debate included mental health, reopening school buildings for in-person learning, dress code and long-term plans for the district. It is available to replay at www.facebook.com/wocptapublic. The election is on Nov. 3; West Orange voters should already have received their mail-in ballots.